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Second Circuit shreds challenge to porn ban at Connecticut prisons

The appellate court found no First Amendment violation and noted that the policy improves working conditions for female corrections officers.

HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Connecticut was justified in banning sexually explicit material from its state prisons, the Second Circuit ruled Thursday, quashing a free-speech suit from a group of seven inmates.

The 58-page opinion asserts that the Department of Corrections had legitimate reasons to ban porn and the like at the state’s 18 correctional facilities, saying the policy helps inmates convicted of sexual crimes rehabilitate and improves working conditions for female corrections officers.

“Common sense dictates that, if the possession and display of these sexually explicit pictorial materials by inmates created an offensive and hostile workplace environment for staff, banning such materials is a rational means of rectifying and improving that workplace environment,” U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph Bianco wrote for a panel of three.

The Trump-appointed Bianco also noted that courts around the country have upheld similar bans in prisons.

Prior to the policy change in 2012, Bianco explained, porn was rampant in Connecticut prisons, creating what the deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections described as “a very sexually charged environment.”

Some inmates would masturbate in front of female staff, with one former warden testifying that some individuals would strip down and wait for her to walk by. During 2012, correctional staff issued 494 public indecency tickets to inmates, according to Thursday's ruling.

It was in June of that year that Connecticut banished porn from its prisons: from images of doing the nasty to images of nudity — no breasts or butts about it.

The state did carve out an exception for scientific or artistic materials, and by 2018, the number of public indecency tickets issued to inmates dropped to 79.

Several inmates challenged the law. Richard Reynolds, a man who once sat on the state’s death row for killing a police officer until the state abolished that punishment, filed suit with a handwritten complaint in March 2013.

Thanks to the policy, Reynolds wrote, he was forced to throw away about 60 magazines as well as 150 photographs. He then got in trouble for keeping a lingerie catalog in his cell, even though it contained no nudity.

The inmate's complaint was eventually consolidated with similar challenges. One man said the policy blocked him from getting a book on how to draw nude models. Another said many pages from a soap opera periodical were ripped out because of the policy.

Reynolds and the other inmates appealed after a federal judge held a bench trial and ruled against them in March 2020. At oral arguments in Manhattan, their attorney, Joseph Scully of the firm Day Pitney, told the panel that Connecticut’s evidence of a hostile work environment caused by porn was merely anecdotal.

Bianco wrote Thursday, however, that the inmates never really countered the testimonies of female correction officers, and that the ban on sexually explicit material was a logical response to improve the workplace for the correction officers.

No longer did officers, for instance, have to rifle through pages of porn while searching cells, the court explained. And the Department of Corrections noted that the policy change did not stop inmates from getting their Sports Illustrated and lingerie catalogs.

Bianco also cited evidence from the trial that an absence of porn helps some individuals convicted of sex offenses better rehabilitate.

“[Because] sex offenders are housed with the general inmate population in DOC facilities, it was reasonable for DOC to conclude, as a practical matter, that it would be impossible to limit access and exposure to pornography to only some inmates,” Bianco wrote.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections declined to comment, saying the office was still reviewing the opinion.

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